One of the world’s leading Ashtanga yoga teachers, David Swenson encourages us to bring his yoga teachings into our daily life
Known as one of the veterans of yoga, David Swenson began practicing yoga in 1969. Today, he is one of the world’s leading Ashtanga teachers, with several books, videos and audios under his belt. He speaks to Destination Deluxe about his found peace, his life purpose, his trials and errors, as well as his commitment to yoga.
HOW HAS YOGA INFLUENCED YOUR LIFE?
Yoga is a tool that has benefited me in every aspect of my life. It helps with mental stress and physical health. Yoga is the greatest gift I have ever received.
HOW DID YOU START? I BELIEVE YOU WERE ONLY 13.
Yes, I began yoga when I was 13 years old. My older brother, Doug, learned about yoga from some books. I also became fascinated with yoga and have been practicing ever since.
WHY WERE YOU DRAWN TO ASHTANGA?
Well, it wasn’t the yoga I started with. Doug and I practiced Hatha yoga from various books. In 1973 I met David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff, and they were teaching Ashtanga. When I came in contact with this yoga, I liked it. I felt better. It felt like I hard returned home. I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve been to other people’s classes, but I always come back to this yoga.
I like the routine of it. I think that there’s a great intelligence behind the arrangement of the postures, the flow and the breath. Ashtanga has so many different ways that it can be practiced. It can be practiced dynamically or softer. It’s a little like Tai Chi. Tai Chi has one set sequence of movement you practice for the rest of your life. Ashtanga is like that. There’s more than one routine, but you take them and you practice them again and again. And from that repetition you seek depth. I fell in love with it and continue to enjoy the method. I believe that all systems of yoga are good, and it is important for the student to find the method that works best for them.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR STYLE IN A FEW SENTENCES?
I try to be real and approachable. Many people are frightened or intimidated by yoga, and I attempt to bring it into a down-to-earth reality that is accessible to anyone.
YOU SAY THAT YOUR CLASSES ARE ABOUT UNITY AND THAT EVERYONE SHARES ONE BREATH TOGETHER. HOW DO YOU BRING THAT MESSAGE ACROSS DURING YOUR SESSIONS?
We are all united through a common spirit and share one breath on this planet.
It’s my basic belief, and the premise to my teaching is that all yoga really comes back to the breath, otherwise it’s simply just a type of gymnastic exercise. If that were the case, the greatest yogis would be circus performers and gymnasts. Then again breath and creating a sound of a breath, which is also a facet of Ashtanga yoga, gives a focal point, like a mantra. So you keep coming back to the sound and the quality of our breath during the practice. This helps us to keep the mind focused, to develop and maintain the meditative qualities of the practice. And I tell people to just look at breath, “It‘s the first thing we do in this life. We take a breath. The last thing we do before death is an outbreath.” So really, life consists of one breath. We’re one breath from death. Stop breathing, and it’s over. It unites us and there’s no language, religion, we all breathe regardless of all these other things. It’s a common uniting force. That’s why I put the emphasis there.
SO HOW DOES ONE EXPERIENCE THAT UNITY DURING YOUR SESSION?
Whether people are experiencing it or not, I can’t say. I can only give thoughts about it and these tools and ideas of it. But one’s experience in yoga will be a unique journey. Everyone’s experience might be slightly different. The duty of a teacher is to offer the tools and give some sort of guidance. Two people travelling to the same place are going to have a different experience on their journey. The journeys of yoga, even though they are similar paths…the specific experience that people have will be slightly different.
YOU’VE ALSO MENTIONED THAT YOU TEACH YOGA IN SUCH A WAY THAT ALL ACTIONS CAN BE A MEDITATION. CAN YOU ELABORATE?
There’s a famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk. His name is Thich Nhat Hanh, and he teaches things like “walking meditation”, “brushing your teeth meditation”. Anything can be a meditation. Meditation is not determined by what we’re doing, but how we’re doing it. By using the correct focus and mindset, we can turn a mundane activity into something that’s meditative and profound.
YOU JOINED THE HARE KRISHNAS BACK IN THE DAYS. HOW DID THAT INFLUENCE YOUR LIFE? WHAT DID YOU LEARN, AND HOW DO YOU APPLY THAT IN YOUR LIFE TODAY?
Yes, that was over 20 years ago. I was searching for something that the Hare Krishna movement seemed to represent. I lived the Hare Krishna lifestyle for a few years and learned a lot about myself, religion, spirituality and the quest for knowledge. It was a valuable experience with both positive and negative connotations. I am able to apply what I learned from that journey in other areas of my life today. Some of what I learned was about negative things that I apply to teaching today, some of the pitfalls of power, the militarization of organized religion and that sort of thing. Of course, there are also positive experiences in it, the discipline and the practice. Both the negative and positive influences have affected how I teach, because I don’t believe that there is one answer for everyone. Religions tend to tell people that there is only one answer and that everyone should follow a certain way. So in my teaching I tend to say, “Ashtanga yoga isn’t the only method or practice. There are many types of yoga. There are many paths. My belief is that they are all good. I like Ashtanga yoga. I don’t claim that it’s the best yoga. It’s certainly not the only yoga. I just say, “If you’re interested in it, I’ll share with you whatever I know about it. And if you don’t, then practice something else.” That’s sort of an attitude that has partially come from that Hare Krishna experience. It’s more like a religion where it’s one way or not, right?
YOU SAY THAT YOU ASK MANY QUESTIONS AND THAT THE KEY IS IN THE QUESTIONS. WHICH QUESTIONS DO YOU ASK YOURSELF?
I think answers are overrated, and I like to get people to think and to question. Rather than just giving answers, I think it’s healthier to coax questions, or to get people to look at things, to question or to wonder why and to find the answer that most suits them and most applies to their life. If there’s a point I want to get across, rather than stating the point, in my mind I formulate questions that will allow the student to come to a conclusion on their own, even if it’s different from my conclusion. It’s ok. They should go through a thought process to do that.
IS IT TRUE THAT YOU FIND ALL YOUR ANSWERS IN YOUR PRACTICE?
We can also gain knowledge through self-exploration. And once we’re going through the practice…It’s not only about doing downward dog, Upward dog. What happens the rest of the day? Where does our yoga practice end and our life begin? Or do they merge and become one thing? Throughout the day it becomes a learning experience, and the practice is like a microcosm of our life. How do we deal with obstacles in our practice? How do we deal with the asanas that we hate, how do we deal with the ones that we love, during the day? What do we do when something bad happens? What do we do when something good happens? How do we react to those things? Our time on the mat can be like a laboratory for our experiences in life. Certainly, there are many ways to gain knowledge, but through yoga practice that’s one method of gaining tools and information that can apply directly within the context of our daily life.
YOU’VE ALSO MENTIONED THAT SOME PEOPLE MIGHT BE INTIMIDATED BY YOGA AND THAT YOU TEACH THEM A DIFFERENT APPROACH.
People often say, “I can’t do yoga, I’m not flexible. Wow, that’s interesting, but I’ll never be able to do that.” I think it’s the duty of the teacher to share with people that yoga goes beyond that. Yoga is really something that is invisible. The real yoga is what we cannot see. It’s below the surface. It’s the internal practice. I offer alternatives to postures. It’s fine if someone can do a posture, great. If someone cannot, we give an alternative. But there’s no one that can say they are a yoga master. No one can say they master postures, because it’s infinite. The possibilities are infinite. And the depth of maturity of a practitioner has really nothing to do with how flexible or how strong they are. We would have to come back to the idea, that it’s just some elite fitness programme. If someone is tight or they only have one arm or one leg, or they’re paralysed, can you say, “Well, you can’t be a yogi”? This is my reason for bringing it back to the breath. If we have the physical capability, fine we each use whatever tools we have. But we have to understand that someone who can do something physically that another cannot, that doesn’t mean that they’re more mature or more advanced. That just means that they’re more flexible or stronger. So if people are feeling intimidated, I try to present the yoga in such a way and enforce the idea that it’s ok to modify things. It’s a personal journey, and it’s important to understand how we must each use the tool of yoga in our life.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
I have another book or two in mind that I would like to write, as well as a video project.
See also: 10 Wellness Trends for 2023
DO YOU HAVE ANY LONG-TERM GOALS? IS THERE ANYTHING YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE?
I don’t accept those kind of goals, because honestly, we don’t know how long we’re going to live. So it’s important to just become involved and engrossed in what we’re doing. You plan for the future, but you also have to live in the moment as well. So there are these kind of things, like books and videos, but I believe it’s important for us to feel that in this moment we’re living a life that is fulfilling to us. Are we living a life in which we feel we’re doing as much as we can?…or trying to align ourselves with our purpose? And I feel fortunate that I have found that. But it hasn’t always been that way. We’re all looking for different things. Certainly, things evolve, change and shift. I don’t necessarily want to know what I’ll be doing ten years from now. I have an idea, for the next year or two, I can tell you that I’m a this workshop and this one. But certainly, there are things in all of our lives that we have no control over.
I do want to spend more time at home with my wife Shelley, our cat “Yogi” our 15 Koi Fish and begin work on those books!
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR PURPOSE IN THIS LIFE?
Well, there are many really. A big part of my purpose in life is to spend time with my wife and to love each other, to treat people around me with respect and compassion, to do my best to learn from my mistakes I’ve made, to grow as a person and individual, to walk with integrity and to stand behind the words that I speak, so they aren’t just empty words. Those are my real purposes. How that manifests may change form day to day. We can live a life of integrity, whether we’re a business person, a yoga teacher or a parent. That’s my main goal and purpose, to observe my actions and my words and to see if I’m really living a compassionate and harmonious life. And many times I’m not, because I’m just like anyone else. Then I have to reassess, look, make some changes and analyze. So life is really this ongoing process of self-discovery.
YOU’VE ALSO STATED IN THE PAST THAT YOU HAVE FOUND PEACE. HOW DID YOU ACHIEVE THAT?
I think that peace just means, that even though I may die today, I’m living my purpose. And that’s the peace. It doesn’t mean that there’s no stress in life. It doesn’t mean that we just float along and there’s never any problem. Peace just means that we feel like we’re living the life that we should be living. And many times we have to live a lot of lives that we realise we shouldn’t be, in order to find out what we should be doing. It’s an ongoing journey. To find balance, sometimes we have to understand imbalance by moving through extremes. In my life there have been different extremes…to swing like a pendulum. And the balance or the peace comes from the middle road. As humans we find it easier to live in extremes, “I’ll only do this. I’ll never do that.” That’s where religion plays a part, where you’re just told to do this and that and you follow. But peace comes from some sort of inner feeling that the life we’re living is a life that we should be living. And it doesn’t have to be that you’re in a monastery, or that you’re doing some grandiose thing. It could be aligned with raising your children, getting them to soccer games on time, being at peace with the life that we have chosen, or the life that has chosen us, but finding our place within that. Certainly, I can’t say that every moment at the day I’m walking around in some bliss bubble. Certainly, I have problems, I have stresses, or I get upset. But underneath all that, as a yogi, we learn to observe our emotions, these ups and downs, and we try not to become too attached to one of them. Great joy or great sadness, both of those are going to change. Instead of this rollercoaster ride, we can become the observer, but it doesn’t mean that we’re some emotionless robot.
I have had many trials and errors in my life. There have been attempts that failed, joys that turned to sorrow. Every one of these experiences contains seeds for personal growth. We must be patient with ourselves and understand that the strongest trees in the forest grow the slowest. Peace comes when we feel that we are treading the path we are meant to be traversing.
CAN YOU SHARE ANYTHING ABOUT THE TRIALS AND ERRORS YOU’VE EXPERIENCED? IS THERE SOMETHING YOU WOULD DO DIFFERENTLY THE SECOND TIME AROUND?
I don’t know. If I did it differently, I wouldn’t be who I am. Everything that I’ve done has happened for a reason. I’ll tell you a little story that I tell in workshops sometimes.
Here are different ways that people learn. One type of person is like this. Let’s say we see a little fire over there, and you tell me, “David, if you put your hand in that fire, it will burn your hand, and it will hurt.” I say, “Really? Thank you. I’m not going to put my hand in that fire.” All I had to do was hear something, and I got the message the first time. Now there’s the second kind of person. “David, you see that fire? You put your hand there, it’s going to burn you.” I say, “Really? I don’t believe you.” Someone else walks by and puts their hand in the fire, and it burns them. And I say, “Wow, that looks like it really hurts. I’m not going to put my hand in that fire.” I had to hear it, and I had to see it until I got the message. A third kind of person, “You see that fire, you put your hand there, it’s going to burn you.” “Really? I don’t believe you.” Someone walks by and puts their hand in and it burns them. I say, “ Wow, it looks like it really hurt them. But it probably wouldn’t hurt me.” And I go and put my hand in the fire, and I go, “Ouch, that really hurt.” I had to hear it, I had to see it, I had to still do it until I finally got the message. Now there’s a fourth type of person. “You see that fire, you put your hand there, it’s going to burn you.” “I don’t believe you.” Somebody walks by, they put their hand in, it burns them. I say, “Well it probably wouldn’t hurt me.” I go there and I stick my head in the fire and I go, “Wow, that really hurt!” Maybe if I stand over on this side and stick my hand in, “Ouch”. I turn around backwards and reach my hand under my leg and touch it, “Ouch”. Maybe if I try a different time of day, maybe tomorrow I’ll put my hand in the fire at a different time, “Ouch”. I can try a myriad of things, building structures over the fire, dangling myself into it…whatever, I keep getting burnt. Finally, one day I go, “Wow, fire burns your hand when you put your hand in it.” So there are four different types of people. We are each a combination of those four, some more than others. But it really doesn’t matter, because the goal is “learn, get the message”. So in my life, with many things, whether it’s relationships, business endeavours, or yoga practice, we try things, and maybe it doesn’t work and we learn something. Maybe we even have to go away from that thing and come back to it and figure it out. Sometimes you realize it was totally off, but it sends you down another path that ended up being more correct. So most people bounce around until they figure it out. Mistakes are underrated. With most things in life, we have to fall down a few times to get it. We couldn’t walk the first time we tried. Most people don’t get relationships right the first time they try. You try to do a downward dog and it doesn’t work the first time, or it doesn’t work the first thousand times. But eventually we get more insights, and we learn about ourselves. This is the hardest part of yoga, called swadiyaya, self-study. It’s the hardest thing to be objective, studying ourselves. Everyone has challenges in life, and everyone has ups and downs, whether it’s the economy, we’ve got money, we’ve got no money, whatever, we have no control over these kind of things. However, we do have control over how we react to the challenges and difficulties in life. And all yoga is, is a tool that helps us to act and react with greater calm.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS THE WORST AND THE BEST THING ABOUT YOGA?
It’s probably the same thing, it’s the practice. It’s the hardest thing and the best thing. To practice yoga is really difficult, but to practice it feels great. The greatest challenges and the greatest rewards sometime come from the same vein. They’re floating on the same river, a river that’s sometimes beautiful, flowing along smoothly, then other times there are great rapids. Sometimes you have to deal with both to understand the river.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS A CHALLENGE IN YOUR PRACTICE? POSTURES?
It’s my mind. It’s like anyone else. Asanas, we think that’s the challenge. But even if you achieve an asana, then what? You’re given another one. Then you achieve that, and you’re given another one. Asanas are like toys for a child. They keep us occupied. But the real learning is the moment by moment practice. And that’s the greatest challenge, it’s a meditation. You try to keep the mind fixed, as it wonders to bring it back to the task at hand. And the greater challenge beyond that is, “How do I apply the yoga in the rest of my life?” Fine you’re on your mat, you’re focused, you’re doing great, you had a good practice, you had a bad practice, whatever, but you’re on your mat and things are fine. And then if we go out into the rest of our day, and we’re just a mean and nasty person the rest of the day…Who cares what we do on the mat? If we can’t apply the knowledge gained from the practice, then it’s just abstract, it has no real value. So the greatest challenge is, “How can I remain focused when I practice, and how can I take the benefits of that and be a better person?” There’s a definition of a yogi that I like. “A yogi is one who leaves a place a little nicer than when they arrived.” It doesn’t say, “A yogi is one who can stand on their hands and put their leg behind their head.” This means each of us in our life, when we take a step, when we speak a word, we’re sending out vibrations of energy. And we can each ask ourselves the question, “Am I a yogi? Am I sending out positive or negative vibrations?” In the wake of my existence, what is left behind, is it destruction and misery? And it might change from time to time. In yoga the practice is ongoing, and we have to be patient with ourselves. We have to be able to make mistakes. We never say that we have mastered it. It’s always a practice, an ongoing challenge throughout each day. And that’s the greatest challenge, to continue to grow and to be objective and to retain some kind of enthusiasm or interest in carrying on in the face of great diversity.
WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING YOGA EXPERIENCE YOU’VE EVER HAD?
I would say doing a yoga demonstration for blind children. They of course could not see me so instead I would hold a pose and they would come up very close to me and reach out ever so gently and trace the lines of my body with their hands. It felt like butterflies alighting on my skin. They never knocked me off balance and their exclamations when finding a leg poised in the air or an extended arm was touching to my heart and inspiring to my soul.
YOU WILL BE TEACHING AT THE ASIA YOGA CONFERENCE AGAIN IN JUNE
Particularly in this stressful time, the Asia Yoga Conference is a great opportunity for people to just plug into this global community and not having to feel alone and to be able to gain knowledge and information from these other teachers and students and coming away from it feeling enlightened and positive, like you have a full cup.
I’m quite looking forward to coming to the conference. I lived in Hong Kong for two years, long time ago, in the 80s.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING THEN, YOGA?
I was trying. There wasn’t much interest in yoga then, and now it’s really vast. It’s funny how things go.
WHAT ARE YOUR 5 MAIN CONTRIBUTIONS TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE?
Turning off lights when I am not in the room.
Sharing valuable knowledge I have learned from others or from my own experiences.
Listening to and learning to respect those with different ideas or opinions than my own.